Chapter 1: First Victim
The woman who approached the band after the show was clearly one of Those Fans. The bots had never exactly topped the charts, but in a hundred and sixteen years of performing, they’d had their fair share of experiences with fame. Like many of Those Fans, she proudly displayed her favorite member of the band; in this case, it was the One Man Band himself, Michael Reed. She wore the trademark purple tank top, a handmade bracelet proclaiming “CARNE JON JON” on one wrist, a matching one on the other wrist that read “MAKE BELIEVE,” and she was brandishing a purple Sharpie. The robots’ smiles might have been slightly nervous as they shuffled aside for her, or it might have been the limited expressiveness of metal faces.
“Er,” said Michael, enthusiasm faltering. Obsessive fans he could handle. Angry fans were generally diverted to the Spine, who had a certain oblivious knack for dealing with them. This woman, however, seemed sad more than anything, and he wasn’t quite sure how best to react. She passed over the marker with an object to be signed— not a CD or a DVD or a kazoo or goggles or anything clearly related to Steam Powered Giraffe, but rather a 4” by 6” glossy photograph. It depicted a little girl not more than six years old, with golden curls and an angelic smile.
“Her name’s Alissa,” she said, voice catching. “She’s been missing for… a while now, and the police say we probably won’t find her. The last time anybody saw her was at one of your shows.” She looked up at Michael with watery eyes.
“I, ah, strongly doubt that anyone int he band hand anything to do with it. I mean, the bots are all strictly non-violent, and any one of them would probably personally return your daughter if they had any idea—”
“Oh, no!” she interrupted. “It’s nothing like that! I’m not accusing you of anything, it’s just, well… Alissa loved you guys. She’d dance around the house, singing along to all the albums. And you’re so good with kids, you were her favorite. So I just thought— if it’s not too weird— could you sign this picture of her?”
Michael realized with a sinking feeling that he did recognize the woman. He didn’t know her by name, but he’d seen her and her daughter at several shows over the past year or so, dancing up a storm in front of the stage. He couldn’t possibly refuse her request. He signed the photo with a flourish, careful not to cover the the girl’s charming face.
“Thank you so much,” said the girl’s mother, tears finally spilling forth. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
The ride back to Walter Manor was a difficult one, their usual spirits dampened by the story of the missing child. The Spine slipped into quiet contemplation, shaking out of it only briefly to comfort the Jon when he spontaneously choked out a robotic sob. Rabbit didn’t show any direct signs of being affected by the tragedy, but his voice was riddled with static when he spoke. They stopped for fajitas on the way, which seemed to help.
Rabbit found Michael sequestered away in the depths of Walter Manor, sifting through pictures on his laptop. It was baffling that he should hide himself away like that. The pictures were accessible from literally anywhere in the manor (and a few places that weren’t) via the Walter Wi-Fi, so there was no special reason for him to be in such an inaccessible location. It was almost as if he wanted to be alone, and that was just silly. Who wants to be alone?
“Hey there, Mister Reed,” said Rabbit, startling him. He must have been seriously absorbed in his work to miss the clack and hiss of Rabbit’s mechanics as he entered the room.
“Oh! Hey, Rabbit,” said Michael. “I didn’t think anyone would find me here.” He always had a smile ready for the copper bot, but today it was strained. Rabbit didn’t seem to notice.
“I didn’t think I’d find ya back here! Whatcha doin’, anyway?” He leaned over Michael’s shoulder with typical disregard for personal space, mismatched eyes reflecting brightly in the computer screen.
Michael gestured at the concert photo currently taking up the whole screen. I twas mostly focused on the band up on the stage, robots gleaming under the lights, but one could still clearly see the pack of children and adults alike gleefully dancing along. “You remember that woman who wanted me to sign the picture of her daughter?”
Rabbit abruptly vented a puff of steam and nodded jerkily. It was the sort of thing that passed for an emotional reaction with him. Michael continued.
“As best as I can tell, this is them,” he said, pointing to a grinning mother/daughter pair on the screen. Rabbit tapped into his recent memory banks and confirmed that the woman was, in fact, the woman who had approached them tearfully seeking Michael’s autograph. The girl, however, was impossible to recognize. Compression artifacts had obliterated her face. Oddly, the rest of the photo was crystal clear and high resolution.
“It’s the same on all the pictures from that night,” said Michael, scrolling through the photo album from that particular show. “Do you still have your personal copy of those memories, or did you already upload it to the wi-fi?”
Gears whirred in Rabbit’s head, and his eyes unfocused. “Searching,” he said. “Searching… searching… searching… searching… searching… searching…”
His eyes unfocused further, blue and green light expanding to fill all available space. “Searching… searching… searching… searching… searching…” Something clicked audibly in his head. “Query n-n-n-n-n-found you.”
Rabbit slumped over and went absolutely still. Michael reached out a cautious hand to see if he was alright, then immediately yanked it back when Rabbit emitted a long jet of steam and slowly straightened up. His eyes flickered as he looked around.
“Are you, ah, okay?” asked Michael tentatively.
“Peachy keen, Mister Reed!” His grin was slightly lopsided, but that was normal.
“Did you find them?”
Ah. He’d restarted without saving again. Michael gritted his teeth and hoped they wouldn’t have to start the conversation from scratch. “The pictures, Rabbit. Of the little girl from the show, the one who disappeared.”
“Oh! I d-d-d-did, but they’ve got the same funny glitch as the ones in the archive. Can’t make her fa-ace at all.”
Michael frowned. That suggested the photos hadn’t been tampered with, unless someone had accessed Rabbit’s memory as well. Which would be an impressive technological feat for anyone not named Peter A. Walter, considering the bots had been built long before modern hard drives. He still couldn’t figure out how any of them managed to interface with a regular computer. “Why did you come looking for me, anyway?” he said in an attempt to shift the topic to something lighter.
“Well, you see, the-the Jon, the Spine and me thought we’d go outside and have a picnic and fly kites and stuff!” He smiled expectantly at him.
“You don’t need my permission to go outside, you know. The estate probably belongs to you guys more than anyone else, current heir notwithstanding.”
“Yeah, but the Spine’s been locked in his room all day with the power buffer again. We need someone to hold the umbrella.”
Michael let out a sigh and rolled his eyes, but the expression was purely one of fondness. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll be out there in a few minutes. I just need to finish up some things.”
Rabbit didn’t budge.
“Why don’t you go and tell the others that?”
Rabbit nodded, and remained firmly planted in the same spot.
“Oh! Of course, right, I just wasn’t sure, because you didn’t, I’ll just head on out now.” Rabbit finally made a noisy exit. Michael flipped through a few more pictures from Alissa’s last show. There were only a few other glitches evident, mostly in group photos of the entire band. Michael’s face wasn’t recognizable in any of them.
Chapter 2: Interlude
The boys and bots of Steam Powered Giraffe had reached the point in their annual run at the zoo where the excitement had long since worn off, with half the summer still to go. They had their moments, to be sure. The Jon insisted on getting ice cream every day, because, according to him, that’s what you do in the summer. Rabbit generally accompanied him, which frequently resulted in Sam and Michael having to halfway dismantle him to clean out the melted mess before something important got stuck. The Jon, fortunately, was a little better insulated, but his enthusiasm still caused more than a few ice-cream-related mishaps.
The Spine was the only one who didn’t participate. He disappeared between sets, trusting Sam and Michael to keep the other bots out of trouble. Nobody was quite sure where he went; it was a big zoo, and one half of the band was usually occupied supervising the other half. That day was a peaceful one, though, and Michael assured Sam he could handle any emergency that might pop up in the time until the next set. For the first time in nearly a month of shows, Sam decided to wander the zoo.
He found the Spine in front of the giraffe enclosure, looking up with an expression that would’ve been impossible to read even if he were human. Sam wasn’t quite sure how to approach him; he didn’t have Michael’s family history with the bots. He was just a part of the band. “So, are we here purely for irony’s sake?” he ventured.
The Spine didn’t immediately acknowledge him. “He said she loved African animals,” he said, still looking up at the giraffe. “So he built her the largest one he could. A hundred times taller than any real giraffe. You should’ve seen it, steaming across the Sahara.”
“I’ve seen pictures.”
“It’s not the same.” He turned to face him. “All this was built to impress a girl. It was never meant to go to war.” He flexed his fingers and stared intently at the interlocking mechanisms in his hand. Sam got the distinct impression he wasn’t talking about the giraffe anymore.
It was the first time Sam had heard any of the bots mention their wartime experiences. He knew they’d been in several wars, but he’d always thought it would be rude to ask, and he was frankly a bit surprised to hear the Spine talk about it so casually. “You can feed them, you know,” he said, trying for familiar territory.
The Spine shook his head. “I’ve tried. They won’t come near me. Animals always know.”
“That I’m not alive,” he said without a trace of emotion. He looked at Sam and smiled broadly. “Come on. We’ve got another show to play.”
Chapter 3: Malfunction Junction
The robots have made a running gag of Rabbit's malfunctions, but it's not usually this bad.
The last performance of the day always came as something of a relief. The work didn’t end there, of course. Even after the instruments and sound equipment were packed up and put away, there were still minor repairs to be made, changes to the set list, practice for the next round, but they were all things that could be done without an audience. The bots never complained, but they always seemed visibly more relaxed when they didn’t have to be the amazing singing musical automatons anymore.
Most importantly, it was nearly sunset, and finally starting to cool off. People always joked that it must be nice to be a robot that didn’t feel the summer heat, and everyone laughed and smiled sympathetically at the band’s human members. The bots had, after all, been originally sent to Africa. However, that was as hundred years ago, and even stubborn Rabbit had been significantly modified since then. More complicated systems were more sensitive to overheating, steam boilers had always carried a certain danger, and performing generated a lot of heat. They lounged backstage in the shade, trying to keep as cool as possible while they waited for their cue. The Spine puffed out little breaths of steam and silently went over guitar chords. The Jon was absorbed in arranging the feathers in his hat, as if their placement held some arcane significance. Rabbit and Michael fell into a tired argument.
“Mister Reed, I just d-don’t think we should keep playing it,” said Rabbit.
“You keep saying that, and I really don’t see what you’re so worried about,” said Michael with a sigh.
“But what happened to Alissa-issa-issa—”
Michael took advantage of the glitch to interrupt. “Had nothing to do with us. It was just an unfortunate tragedy. Look, we can’t change the set at the last minute. Besides, the lineup as it is perfectly showcases everyone’s talent. We each get to lead on a song. If we swap Make Believe for something else, it’ll throw off the balance.”
Rabbit steamed anxiously. “But all the kids dancing together, they could be targets. We can’t w-w-w-w-watch everyone. Please, Mister Reed, I don’t think—”
“When you can make it through a show without fucking up, then maybe I’ll care about your opinion!” snapped Michael. Rabbit cringed as if he’d been hit, and looked to the other bots for support. Neither of them seemed to take any notice; the Spine hummed softly to his guitar, while the Jon obsessively arranged and rearranged his feathers. Rabbit panicked, waiting for someone to call Michael out for his angry outburst, to say something in his defense, to say anything at all to acknowledge the remark was uncalled for, but there was no reaction. Had he imagined it? He turned back to Michael, and his vision blurred. “Error,” said a voice inside his head. Everything was fuzzy, static. He thought he heard Michael talking, but the sound was nightmarishly distorted. Something in the shadows. Everything out of focus, optical sensors refusing to function. He could swear there was a fifth person in the room, but with all his senses malfunctioning, it was impossible to tell. “Error,” said the voice. “Error, error, error—”
The Spine and the Jon were on either side of him, restraining him against his convulsions. Michael knelt in front of him, cradling Rabbit’s face in his hands. He looked into his eyes with an expression of genuine concern. “Hey,” he said, tapping the side of Rabbit’s head. “You alright?”
Rabbit blinked slowly. He appeared to be on the floor. He didn’t remember falling. “Error,” he said weakly, and smiled to let them know it was a joke.
Michael smiled back. “So you said. Are you gonna be able to do the show? We can send the Jon out to dance or something if you want to stall for time and run some diagnostics.” He showed no sign that any of the earlier conversation had taken place.
“No, no, I’m fine, Mister Reed. Never better,” said Rabbit. He shook off the other bots and noisily clambered to his feet, earning a knowing look from the Spine.
“You had us all worried,” said Michael.
Before Rabbit could come up with a response, Sam poked his head into the room. “C’mon, you guys!” he said. “It’s time to go out!”
“We’re doing a full check-up when when we get home,” said Michael sternly as everyone geared up to go onstage.
“Yes, Dad,” said Rabbit with a hiss of steam. He slouched dramatically and maintained the image of a sulky teenage girl all the way to the stage.
The finale lineup conveniently placed very little stress on Rabbit at first, allowing him time to properly recover from his fit backstage. He smiled with mechanical precision as the Jon oozed his way through Ju Ju Magic, and if the expression seemed rehearsed, well, people were there to see the robots. If they wanted emotion, they could go to the opera. By the time the first song was over and the Spine began the introductions, he was fine. Really, he was. He got through all his lines without more than the usual stutter, and that was mostly for effect. They played another song, one for the Spine. A song about Saturday nights for a Saturday night show. He was fine. He could make it through the show. Everything was okay.
“How about a sing-along for the next song? Huh?” said Rabbit, right on cue. He held up a tiny instrument. “Or even better, a kazoo-along!” He grinned at the audience. He noticed repeat attendees digging out their own kazoos in anticipation. There was already a small collection of Michael Reed fans gathering in front of the stage, several with kids. He was fine. Things would be fine. He followed his script. It was just a song.
“Rabbit’s not afraid to shake it,” sang Michael, and Rabbit shook it obligingly. He danced where he was supposed to dance, kazooed where he was supposed to kazoo, and surreptitiously watched the audience the whole time, counting down the lines left in the song.
As they reached the chorus, an ear-splitting feedback whistle rang out across the audience. Everyone reflexively checked their microphones, monitors, amp jacks, speakers, anything at all, trying to find the source of the problem.
“Hold on, I’m working on it!” came a shout from the sound booth. Somewhere behind the scenes, Steve flipped switches and adjusted dials. The sound cut out entirely, which most of them were willing to accept as an improvement.
“Pardon us, ladies and gentlemen. We appear to be experiencing some, ah, technical difficulties,” said the Spine, turning up his charm as far as it would go in an attempt to placate the audience.
“U-usually the only thing that b-b-b-breaks onstage is me,” said Rabbit with a practiced grin, which elicited some nervous chuckles.
A few jots of static sputtered out of the speakers. “Almost got it!” shouted Steve. The system abruptly cut back in with a low electric hum and the sound of an old television set to mute, a high-pitched whine that was out of hearing range for most humans and none of the robots. It was the sort of sound that set Rabbit’s gears grinding, but the show, as they said, must go on. He’d performed under worse conditions.
Michael counted them in, and they picked up approximately where they’d left off, just before the chorus. It wasn’t exactly a proper chorus; it was more a catchy tune to hum in the middle of the song. Or, if you were Rabbit, a catchy tune to kazoo in the middle of the song. He tried to concentrate on his admittedly simple role in the song, but it was difficult with the whine from the speakers growing louder and louder.
Rabbit chanced a look at the rest of the band. They appeared to be coping with the noise more effectively. Rabbit wasn’t handling it as well. He could barely hear the music he was supposed to be dancing to, but he forced himself to smile at the audience, and that was when he saw him.
He stood absolutely still among the dancing children in front of the stage. He was tall, very tall, and as Rabbit watched, he slowly placed one hand on a little boy’s shoulder. Rabbit couldn’t make out either of their faces; when he tried to focus, the whine reached painful levels and he felt something catch and stall inside him. It was happening again; the overwhelming distortion that he’d experienced backstage was creeping in on him. Static sang in his visual and audio sensors.
The tall man turned his head towards Rabbit.
Chapter 4: Ockham's Razor
The simplest explanation is usually the best one.
When he woke up, he was strapped to the repair table at Walter Manor and his chest was open. Once again, it was Michael who was bent over him, but this time they were alone, and he looked so very tired. He noticed Rabbit was awake, and held up something with a pair of rubber-insulated tweezers.
“Do you know what this is?” he said.
“Can’t say I do, Mister Reed.” Rabbit’s voice sounded flat and small with all his mechanics exposed.
“It’s a piece of a paper cup. From today’s ice cream. I found this caught in your— well, actually, I’m not completely sure what it does, but it’s important. There were bits like this throughout your system. You can’t eat the cup, okay?”
Rabbit nodded solemnly as best he could in his current state. “Roger that, Mister Reed. I’ll tell the Jon it’s cones only from here on out.”
That earned him a weary smile. “Not exactly what I meant, but it’ll do.” Michael leaned against a shelf of bizarre tools and rubbed his forehead. “Look, I don’t want to leave you like this all night, but… it’s late, and it’s been a long day. Night. I’ve lost track.”
“The Spine can do it. So can the Jon, sometimes. We’ve known each other a long time.”
Michael nodded and straightened, pulling off his gloves. At some point they had been a pale neutral color, but now they were black and slick with oil. Rabbit was dimly aware that there were still pieces of him scattered around the worktable, like some sort of grisly mechanical murder scene. It wasn’t the first time he’d woken up half-assembled in the repair room, but he found it deeply disconcerting every time.
Rabbit strained to watch Michael as he shuffled around the room. Michael wordlessly put away tools so he could go and fetch the Spine. He paused in the doorway, just out of sight. “You need to be more careful, Rabbit,” he said softly. “Someday I won’t be able to fix you.”
Rabbit couldn’t see the doorway from his position on the table, but he knew he was alone. He hummed a tune to himself and waited for the Spine to come put him back together again. Surely it was rude in most cultures to leave someone strapped to a table without so much as a radio to listen to. Then again— he checked. His internal radio was disconnected, but he had wi-fi. He tapped into the network, and drifted among the shared files.
He was snapped out of his electronic daydreams by the faint sound of footsteps. A tall, slender shadow appeared on the wall opposite the doorway. Someone else was there. Rabbit twisted and struggled to see who it was, but the restraints had been added to contain his most violent malfunctions, and the table was facing the wrong way. He could only stay put and wait for his visitor to enter his range of vision. He watched the shadow grow taller as the footsteps drew nearer and nearer.
“You’ve been quite the burden to us today,” said a familiar voice.
“Oh, oh hey, they Spine,” said Rabbit with relief. The vents on his face flexed, but with half his systems still disconnected, no steam came out. “Er, have I?”
The Spine leaned over Rabbit to inspect his level of disassembly. “Indeed. We had to carry you from the stage, you know. It ruined the show.”
Rabbit tried to remain still as the Spine reached into his chest and began deftly reattaching hoses and fine copper tubing. Whatever the others might think of him, he did actually know better than to move around while someone had their fingers in fragile machinery. He felt a sharp jolt, though, and couldn’t repress a twitch when the Spine brushed against an exposed electrical contact with one metal hand.
“M-m-m-maybe you should wear gloves. Mister Reed always does,” said Rabbit nervously.
“Mister Reed likes to keep oil and more caustic fluids off of his hands,” said the Spine, not looking up from his work. “I have no such concerns.”
“Yeah, but he’s not made of metal.”
“That’s what I meant.”
“N-no, I mean, you could really do some d-d-damage if you touch the wrong thing. Electrical short. Not my idea of a thrill.”
The Spine arched his eyebrows dubiously. “I promise I’ll be very careful,” he said. It should have been reassuring. After all, the Spine was the very soul of precision. He played a dozen different musical instruments, most of which required a high degree of manual dexterity. If he said he wouldn’t hurt Rabbit, he ought to trust him. At the moment, however, Rabbit wasn’t very inclined to trust anyone, especially while he was in such a vulnerable position.
The Spine continued the job in relative silence, and Rabbit did his best not to pay too much attention. Something about the way the brim of his hat hid his eyes troubled him. Which was silly, really. It wasn’t as if robot eyes were the so-called windows to the soul that made humans wax poetic. Their eyes were just optical sensors, electronic photoreceptors. Still, he would’ve felt more comfortable if he could see them.
He chanced a look down at the Spine’s progress on his reassembly just in time to see him deliberately insert slender fingers into delicate electrical equipment. Electricity arced through the Spine’s hand. The shock was immediate and intense.
“Wh-whadday think you’re doin’?”
“Hold still, Rabbit,” said the Spine sternly, and he shocked him again. Rabbit couldn’t understand it. Sure, they’d joked once or twice about violence as comedy, and the Spine was terrifying when he was angry, but Rabbit had never actually believed that he’d intentionally inflict any kind of pain on someone, much less someone who was utterly defenseless.
A third shock, and the Spine extracted his hand holding something small and white between thumb and forefinger. “Sorry there, bucko,” he said, setting aside the paper fragment. He tilted up his head, and his eyes flashed green and reassuring. “Looks like Michael missed a piece. You must’ve had one heck of a day.”
“That’s putting it lightly,” said Rabbit. “I saw…” He paused. He wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it.
“I’m sure you saw lots of things. No wonder you’ve been malfunctioning all day. You were probably only lucid for half the show before you shut down. I can’t imagine what sorts of things you must’ve hallucinated.” He closed and latched Rabbit’s chest plate and patted him on the shoulder with a dull clank. “That’s the last of that. You should be good as new.”
“Could you, ah, unbuckle the restraints?”
“Oh! Of course! Wouldn’t want you stuck here all night, eh?” The Spine smiled as if he had no idea he’d just named Rabbit’s current number one fear. A minute or two, and the restraints were off. Rabbit was finally able to sit up and stretch.
“So… n-none of that was real? It was all just because of some stupid ice cream cup?”
“Well,” said the Spine, “without knowing what you experienced, I can’t say for sure, but it seems likely that your perceptions were heavily compromised by a series of severe malfunctions. Because of a stupid ice cream cup.”
“What really happened, then?”
The Spine made a pained expression. “You… shut down on stage,” he said with difficulty. “It wasn’t pretty.”
“Have you or the Jon uploaded any of it yet? I want to see.”
He shook his head. “Not yet. I don’t know if you should see it. It was painful for all of us to watch. We weren’t entirely sure you’d make it.”
“Then I’ll upload mine and you guys can tell me,” suggested Rabbit.
“That’s definitely a bad idea. You should probably delete everything after you got ice cream. Those memories are almost guaranteed to be horribly corrupted,” said the Spine emphatically. He put away the last few tools he’d needed and switched off the bright overhead light.
“True.” Rabbit stared at his feet. It was all good news, really. Everything had just been some kind of waking nightmare, and now it was over. He was fixed. Repaired. He felt terrible for causing so much trouble for the band, and no doubt scaring off a good portion of the audience, but how was he supposed to know that something so harmless as ice cream could be so dangerous?
“Do you and the Jon really get ice cream every day?” said the Spine suddenly.
“Er, yeah.” The Spine had never asked what they did between sets before.
“You could’ve asked me, you know. I like ice cream, too. And I would’ve stopped you from eating that cup.” He tried to keep the accusing tone out of his voice, but Rabbit could tell he was hurt to be excluded. He’d sort of assumed that the Spine wouldn’t be interested in his and the Jon’s sillier escapades.
“We didn’t know where you were! Sam told me he fo-found ya lookin’ at the giraffes.”
The Spine nodded. “I told him about going to Africa. That even though it’s what history will probably remember about us, we were never intended to go to war.” Rabbit didn’t respond. They had an unspoken understanding that they didn’t talk about the wars, any of them. They’d been there, all three of them. There was no reason to discuss what they already knew.
“We were good at it though, weren’t we?” said the Spine softly. Rabbit looked at him in surprise, but the Spine just smiled back. He stood dramatically in the doorway as he had when he entered, hands still smeared with Rabbit’s oil. Partially silhouetted by the light from the hallway, it could’ve been any dark liquid. “I’ll be in the Hall of Wires if anyone needs me,” he said, and left. Rabbit was alone again.
Chapter 5: Use Your Imagination
It's not the best of circumstances, but a day off is a day off.
Early the next morning there was a phone call from the zoo. It seemed they were concerned about the potential for further malfunctions, especially if an audience member were injured. They weren’t cancelling the act, as the robots simply had too large of a draw when animals in cages were becoming less impressive, but they did insist that the band take a day off to make sure there wouldn’t be a repeat of Saturday night. The cost of finding a last minute replacement act would be deducted from their pay.
Michael had already planned to sleep in somewhat to make up for yesterday’s late night Rabbit repairs, but he hadn’t allotted himself too much rest, expecting to be up and on his way to the zoo. The Spine, ever the responsible one, crept into his room and helpfully turned off the alarm clock. He volunteered to stay there until Michael woke so that he wouldn’t panic and think he’d overslept. With the two of them occupied while Michael got his beauty sleep, the Jon nominated Sam to join him and Rabbit in their day-off adventures.
Sam didn’t actually live at Walter Manor, but with the extended run of shows at the zoo, it was easiest to keep all the members of the band in one place. He’d moved into one of the manor’s many guest rooms early in the summer, which was where Rabbit found him, playing some kind of cave-related video game.
“Oh, Sam,” said Rabbit in a sing-song voice.
“If you’ve dropped your sandwich again, I’m not picking it— oh, hello, Rabbit.” His tone of voice abruptly shifted when he turned and saw who his visitor was.
“There are sandwiches?” asked Rabbit hopefully.
“No, no,” Sam said quickly, “It’s… a thing. That the Jon does. Nevermind. What did you want?”
“Well, I wanted a new toaster, but the Spine said I obviously wasn’t responsible enough to have a kitchen appliance of my own, and if we got one, I’d just make toast, and someone else would be stuck with emptying out the little slots and wiping down the sides and making sure it was unplugged and put away, and I told him it would be like a family toaster, and everyone could make toast and we’d all share in the work of taking care of it, but he still said no, besides, the Jon is allergic to crumbs. I think he made that up because he’s just more of a coffee maker person, because the Jon is fine around bread crumbs.”
Sam blinked. He hadn’t realized that story was true. His curiosities about how the robots related to modern electronics were swiftly dwindling. He tried again. “What did you want from me specifically?”
“Oh, uh…” Rabbit had lost his train of thought entirely. He glanced around the room, looking for some clue as to why he was there. The walls were covered in artwork, mostly slightly surreal black-and-white drawings. It gave him ideas. “Did y-y-y-you draw those?”
Sam looked at his handiwork and smiled. “Yeah, when I have the time. Sometimes I sketch you guys performing. I, uh, hope that’s okay with everyone.”
“Yeah, sure, listen, d’you think you could do me a favor?”
“Probably,” said Sam cautiously.
“Y’know when there are all the people dancing in front of the stage? C-could you draw them, the children-en-en?”
“Is this about what happened last night?”
“No! I mean, yes! It’s— I feel awful that Mister Reed was up so late last night on account of me. I’m putting together a gift as an apology, and that’s his favorite part of the show.”
Sam nodded slowly. It sounded reasonable enough. “I can’t draw while I’m playing,” he reminded him.
“After the show, then. While their cute little faces are still fresh in your memory.”
“Er, yeah, I guess so.”
“Awesome!” said Rabbit. “Oh, and, ah, don’t tell Mister Reed. I want it to be a surprise.”
“Sure, no problem,” said Sam. Rabbit was still looking at him expectantly. “Was that all?”
Rabbit tried to concentrate. “Hmmm. I dunno, but me and the Jon were gonna go have an adventure. Michael’s sleeping and the Spine is being boring, so do you wanna come with us?”
“Actually, I think I would.” He spent plenty of time helping Michael drag the bots out of trouble, but he hadn’t had much chance to just spend time with them. And he couldn’t just sit in his borrowed room all day. Well. He could, but he’d rather not.
“Great! Come on, let’s go see what the Jon’s doing.” Rabbit all but dragged him from the room.
The Jon was stretched out on the grass not far from the manor’s main entrance. It was a nice little spot, with wildflowers here and there and the occasional tree for shade, but not too much of a hike from the manor proper. Rabbit immediately dropped onto the grass beside him, setting his hat aside and resting his head in his hands. Sam followed his example, and soon the three of them were lying on their backs in the sun, gazing up at the sky.
“That cloud is shaped like a kazookaphone,” said the Jon after a while, pointing.
Sam squinted. The cloud was definitely shaped like something, but… “Wait, kazookaphone?”
“Yeah, from Kazooland,” said Rabbit. “Only the most powerful instrument ever to taste human breath! Or robot breath, I guess. I don’t know if I’d call the Kazooland inhabitants human. We were gonna import ‘em, but they told us they were too dangerous for this mortal dimension.”
“I don’t think Kazooland is a real place, Rabbit.”
“Sure it is! We’re good friends with the royal family and everything.”
“It sounds like some kind of theme park, like Sea World or Disneyland.”
“It’s definitely a real place,” said the Jon. “We all went there. You can ask anyone at the manor, and all of them will tell you about Kazooland. Except the ones that are lying.”
“Not all the doors in Walter Manor lead to rooms,” said Rabbit cryptically. “Didn’t you ever try any of the locked doors Mister Reed specifically told you not to touch?”
“Well, no. He told me not to touch them.”
Rabbit paused. “Oh. Well. That’s boring. Most people do that the first chance they get.
The clouds drifted by. Birds sang. It was generally a beautiful day. The Jon pointed to another cloud. “That one’s a dragon,” he said.
“What, that one?” said Sam. He could hear the grass rustle as the Jon nodded beside him.
“Yeah,” said Rabbit. “It looks just like the one we met in the Epic Kingdom. He thought that since we were steam powered, we were there to steal his hoard of coal, but we were able to work things out.”
“Er, don’t you mean hoard of gold?”
“What? No, dragons hoard coal. It’s why they smoke. Everyone knows that. Why would they hoard gold? That’s just stupid.”
Sam didn’t want to try explaining Lord of the Rings to Rabbit, so instead he pointed to another cloud. “I think that one’s a monkey.”
“Good thing the Spine’s not here,” said Rabbit, and the Jon giggled.
Sam braced himself for another unlikely story set in some parallel universe, and asked, “Why’s that?”
“I dunno, he just hates monkeys,” saiad Rabbit. “Hey, the Jon, remember our first year at the zoo?”
The Jon giggled louder. Both Rabbit and Sam were willing to accept that as a response.
“What happened?” said Sam, curious now for the story.
“They set up our stage by the chimpanzee exhibit. I guess they were tryin’ to be funny, putting the almost people side by side for folks to decide what’s more human, a chimp or a robot. But the Spine, boy, he didn’t think it was funny at all.”
“He absolutely flipped,” said the Jon in between giggles. “It was amazing.”
“Er, I don’t know if that’s what I’d call it, but it was certainly impressive. Most people had never seen him angry, including Mister Reed. The current Mister Reed, anyway. The first Mister Reed saw… saw us g-g-go to Europe and Africa. So this—”
“He shot burning jets of steam between his teeth and growled at children! His eyes flashed, and he bent open the cage bars with his bare hands. There are still finger marks on them, if you know where to look.”
“Uh, no Jon, that never happened, he just kinda hissed and stomped around—”
“And then he armed all his weapons, and he laughed and laughed, and grew taller and taller and taller until his head brushed the clouds, and he shouted with the voice of God, ‘And I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll eat you all up, and your little dog, too.’” If the Jon had anything else to say, it was lost in a high, manic laughter that shook his entire body.
“He’s mixing up his fairy tales,” remarked Rabbit, leaning out of range of the Jon’s convulsions.
“What, and the rest is normal?” Sam shouted over the laughter.
“Well, no, but he only mixes up fairy tales when he’s low on power. You didn’t bring any Crystal Pepsi, did you?”
“Crystal Pepsi, are you serious? They stopped making that years ago!”
“And P-Peter A. Walter the Fifth bought all that’s left! Look, there’s the Spine finally, see if he’s got any.” Rabbit pointed to a tall figure in a dark suit standing near the manor, not moving. He was too far away to see his expression, but he appeared to be watching the three of them.
“Rabbit, there’s no one there,” said Sam. “And the Jon is getting worse. We need to do something, now. Does he have, I don’t know, an off switch or something?”
He looked at the Jon, who was starting to bubble oil from his mouth. When he looked back at the manor, the figure was gone. He thought he heard a sound like a distant air raid siren, but it was difficult to make out over the Jon’s laughter. “Yes,” he said, “but I c-c-c-can’t just— if you had an off switch, would you casually let people know about it?”
“Fair enough.” Sam climbed to his feet. “I’ll go inside and look for a Crystal Pepsi, then. You make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.” He took off at a run towards the manor.
“Yes, sir,” said Rabbit sarcastically. He waited until Sam was well out of hearing range before he reluctantly twisted his fingers into the Jon’s hair to keep his head still and whispered the magic words into his ear. His fingers found the hidden switch. The Jon went completely slack, relaxing into Rabbit’s hands. Rabbit gently let his head rest on the grass again.
Sam would probably be a while finding the Crystal Pepsi, so Rabbit went ahead and perfunctorily unbuttoned the Jon’s shirt and opened his chest plate. He felt a twinge of guilt, even though the Jon was the only one among them who apparently had no apprehensions with being opened up and tinkered on, probably because his mechanics were so dramatically different from the rest of them. The Spine pretended not to care, but he was obviously uncomfortable to appear so blatantly mechanical in front of humans. And Rabbit… well, there was a reason the repair table had straps.
Rabbit tried not to look at the swirling koi, and instead quickly located the Jon’s reservoir. Rabbit had never learned how, exactly, the Jon got his power from the Crystal Pepsi, but then again, few people had much of an idea how any of the bots worked. He popped the latch on the little rubber-sealed door, and peered inside.
It was absolutely bone dry. The Jon should have forcibly shut down ages ago from lack of power. And while that was baffling enough, he shouldn’t have run out of fuel so soon, either, unless he forgot to fill up at some point. Rabbit thought about checking his memories of the previous day to see if the Jon had skipped a refuel, but then he remembered the Spine’s caution that those memories were probably corrupt.
He heard footsteps. Sam arrived, carrying a shining can of salvation. Not far behind him were Michael and the Spine. Rabbit hastily opened the can and poured the contents into the Jon’s reservoir. Michael and the Spine wordlessly knelt down next to him and helped him to close the Jon back up again. When they were nearly finished, the Jon’s eyes flickered alight.
“I had the strangest dream,” he said, and looked at Sam and Rabbit. “And you were there, and you were there…”
Sam and Rabbit smiled nervously, but they helped the Jon to his feet. He seemed none the worse for the wear. He adjusted his top hat and looked around cheerfully.
“Well,” said Michael, breaking the silence, “It’s a lovely day out here, but we’ve got work to do. Tests to take, y’know.”
“Is it multiple choice or short essay? I lost my number two pencil,” said the Jon.
“No, Jon. Diagnostics. The folks at the zoo want our reassurances that everyone’s in tip top condition. So it’s back inside with all of you. Party’s over, c’mon, let’s go.” Somehow Michael managed to herd Sam and the bots towards the manor entrance.
As they went inside, the Jon remarked casually, just loud enough for Sam and Rabbit to hear, “You know, it didn’t really look like a monkey at all.”